In a claustrophobic cellar, all possible exits are blocked. A nightmarish episode unfolds: the torture of a naked, shackled man by a crazed pod of anthropomorphic birds, an operation overseen by a multi-breasted female, who can be seen emerging from a huge eggshell like a nightmarish jack-in-the-box.
Welcome to Hölle der Vögel (‘Birds’ Hell’), a painting by Germany’s Max Beckmann from 1937-38. His nationality and the date are crucial: Beckmann completed this scene — an allegory of Nazi rule — while in exile in Amsterdam.
‘It’s as ferociously visceral a work as you’re ever likely to see,’ says Jay Vincze, Head of Impressionist and Modern Art at Christie’s in London, where the painting will be offered on 27 June. ‘This was Beckmann’s personal response to the brutality and collective madness wrought by the Nazis.’
The artist doubtless identified with the picture’s victim, who is having lines carved into his back with a knife or perhaps even being skinned. In July 1937, Hitler had launched an attack on avant-garde artists, threatening them with imprisonment or castration.
Nearly 600 works by Beckmann were confiscated from German galleries, and he was one of the principal artists included in the infamous Degenerate Art exhibition staged by the Nazis in Munich in a bid to name and shame those deemed to be ‘driving forces of corruption’. Fearful of further persecution, the 53-year-old Beckmann fled with his wife Mathilde to the Netherlands on 19 July 1937 — the same day on which the show opened.
The victim in Birds’ Hell, however, surely represents the decent, average German. To his left is a table on which we can see some of the good things he enjoyed before the torturers entered: a book (symbol of learning), a bunch of grapes (symbol of charity) and a candle (symbol of enlightenment).
To 21st-century viewers, this scene of unhinged, ornithological attack calls to mind Alfred Hitchcock’s classic movie, The Birds. For Beckmann, his artistic inspirations were the hellish, medieval visions of Northern European painters such as Hieronymus Bosch and Matthias Grünewald.
The demon-in-chief in Birds’ Hell occupies centre stage. It’s not entirely clear whether she's screaming or smiling crudely. She doesn’t represent Adolf Hitler so much as personify the National Socialist party as a whole, raising her right arm in a Sieg Heil salute. Newly hatched, she signifies a horrifying new era.
‘Beckmann has really gone in for visual overload here,’ says Vincze, ‘using loud, garish colours for the birds’ plumage, in particular, but also thick sweeps of black to vividly mark out the individual forms. His dynamic brushwork adds to the sense of violence and din.’ The same applies to the figures mimicking their leader’s salute in the background left, and the large loudspeakers in the background right.
Birds’ Hell was painted not long after Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, arguably the most famous painting of the 20th century. Vincze sees a number of parallels between the two works: ‘It’s not too much of an exaggeration to say that this painting is Beckmann’s Guernica. In part, because it was an artistic response to the destruction of his homeland by a political evil. But also in the sense that it works on both a specific and a universal level.’
Which is to say that this allegorical attack of mad creatures on a lone individual has the power to strike a chord even with those unaware of German history. One can find resonance in it — and, sadly, draw contemporary parallels from it — in any era.
Beckmann himself certainly did not intend the painting as agitprop. Unlike Guernica, which Picasso exhibited at the Spanish Pavilion at the 1937 World’s Fair in Paris, Birds’ Hell was initially seen by very few people; it hung privately in the Paris apartment of his friend, Käthe von Porada, until the end of the Second World War.
‘Genuine art cannot be made effective through propaganda,’ Beckmann wrote to a friend while working on the painting. Reflecting on the fact that Hitler had been voted to power democratically by the German people, he added that ‘politics is an inferior concern, [which] changes continually with the whim of the masses’.
By contrast, what Beckmann, as an artist, sought to capture was ‘the permanent, the unique, the true existence… [beyond] illusions’. In other words, truths deeper than any politician — let alone a Nazi politician — could muster.